The U SPORTS women’s hockey national championships will take place this Thursday through Sunday in Napanee, Ont. at the Strathcona Paper Centre.
The storylines are plentiful; with Montreal absent, a new champion will be crowned; Julie Chu’s hard-charging Concordia team will look to engineer an upset; top-seeded UBC will seek redemption following last year’s 8-0 gold-medal defeat.
How it will all play out remains to be seen, but it promises to be an entertaining tournament from the opening puck drop Thursday at 3:00 PM.
Below you’ll find a team-by-team breakdown, and if you manage to make it through all eight, you’ll be rewarded with some very official predictions and a fun little exercise where I attached songs to each team’s chances of winning nationals.
Note: While this year’s national tournament will not be broadcast by Sportsnet, all games will be streamed live on OUA.tv
UBC Thunderbirds (#1, Canada West)
Regular Season: 23-4-1 (Conf: 1st)
Playoffs: Canada West Champions (SF: defeated USask 2-1, F: defeated Alberta 2-1)
Strengths: The T-Birds boast the best power play (19.3 per cent) of any team in Napanee, and have a strong senior core that contributes both leadership and scoring. UBC is deep offensively, with seven players having cracked the 15-point mark during the regular season, and has a deep and experienced back end led by Universiade veteran Kelly Murray (3-17—20). Graham Thomas’s team was superb on the road this season, dropping a solitary overtime decision back on Jan. 21 at Saskatchewan, but is also yet to play a playoff game away from home.
Weaknesses: While difficult to poke noticeable holes in a one seed, UBC did struggle at times to create offence against a systematic Alberta side in the Canada West final. In that regard, there is definitely tape out there on how to neutralize UBC’s offence.
Guelph Gryphons (#2, OUA)
Regular Season: 20-3-1 (Conf: 1st)
Playoffs: Ontario Champions (QF: swept Windsor 2-0, SF: defeated Waterloo 2-1, F: beat Nipissing 6-1 in McCaw Cup)
Strengths: Rachel Flanagan’s built a powerhouse program at Guelph, and much of that success starts from the net out. The Gryphons surrendered a nation-low 1.31 goals per game, and Guelph ‘tender Val Lamenta (1.39, .945) could very well be the best shot-stopper in the country. Of course, having a veteran one-two punch like Kaitlin Lowy (16-13—29) and Kelly Gribbons (12-14—26) helps. Freshman Sydney Davison (9-4—13) enters nationals off a two-goal McCaw Cup performance against Nipissing.
Weaknesses: Guelph’s special teams have struggled at times, with both the power play and penalty kill ranking a pedestrian 11th. The Gryphons’ three regulation losses all came on the road against top-10 defences; without their significant home-ice advantage, will they be able to run other top teams into the ice?
Saint Mary’s Huskies (#3, AUS)
Regular Season: 18-3-3 (Conf: 1st)
Playoffs: AUS Champions (SF: defeated Moncton 2-1, F: defeated StFX 2-1)
Strengths: The Huskies have two potential game-breakers in Breanna Lanceleve (15-24—39) and Caitlyn Manning (14-21—35). At plus-29 and plus-27 respectively, and with SMU having last change in its quarterfinal, that duo should give the Huskies favourable matchups.
Weaknesses: Special teams can be killer at a tournament with margins as narrow as U SPORTS nationals, and quite frankly the Huskies don’t stack up. At just shy of 83 per cent, the Saint Mary’s penalty kill is the worst in the tournament and could be exposed by the most talented teams SMU will have faced all season.
McGill Martlets (#4, RSEQ)
Regular Season: 16-4-0 (Conf: 1st)
Playoffs: RSEQ Champions (defeated Ottawa 2-1, swept Concordia 2-0)
Strengths: The first thing to mention about the Martlets is Olympic gold-medalist and McGill forward Melodie Daoust (11-19—30). She’s a game-breaker in her own right, and factoring in the likes of sophomore Olivia Atkinson (13-12—25) and Marie-Philip Lavoie (8-15—23) makes the Martlets top-six scary. McGill’s five-forward power play unit could be the best in the country.
Weaknesses: The Martlets lack secondary scoring of any kind, and have been prone to defensive-zone lapses at various points this season. At 82.9 per cent, McGill’s 25th-ranked penalty kill has been far from perfect this season.
StFX X-Women (#5, AUS)
Regular Season: 16-8-0 (Conf: 3rd)
Playoffs: Lost AUS Final (QF: defeat Dalhousie 2-0, SF: defeated St. Thomas 2-1, F: lost 2-1 to SMU)
Strengths: X has one line, and it’s a darn good one. Sarah Bujold (24-19—43), Kara Power (12-23—35) and Daley Oddy (13-21—34) were a combined plus-80 this season, and should be able to hold their own against anybody. They took tons of shots and generated high-quality chances throughout X’s 2016-17 campaign.
Weaknesses: X has one line, and there is a significant drop-off after that. Like any AUS entrant, the onus will be on them to prove they can hang with the best from tougher conferences. Rookie goaltender Ariana Orasanin emerged as the starter through the playoffs, but will face the biggest test of her career in Napanee.
Alberta Pandas (#6, Canada West)
Regular Season: 21-4-3 (Conf: 2nd)
Playoffs: Lost Canada West final (SF: swept Manitoba 2-0, F: lost 2-1 to UBC)
Strengths: Lindsey Post (1.31, .929) is a very good goaltender playing behind a solid defensive core. The Pandas have players— Alex Poznikoff (13-12—25), Autumn MacDougall (11-10—21), etc.— that can finish chances, so long as they create them. Alberta is an elite defensive team, and to quote the old Madden NFL mantra: Defence wins championships
Weaknesses: The Pandas have occasionally struggled to generate high-quality chances, most notably in the Canada West championship against UBC. Alberta is also a relatively young team, with plenty of freshman and sophomore contributors who will be making their debuts on the national stage.
Concordia Stingers (#7, RSEQ)
Regular Season: 10-9-1 (Conf: 3rd)
Playoffs: Lost RSEQ Final (defeated Montreal 2-0, lost to McGill 2-0)
Strengths: Audrey Belzile (9-9—18) was arguably the RSEQ’s top rookie and Claudia Dubois (11-6—17) one of the conference’s most dynamic offensive players. Concordia rattled off eight-straight wins after Christmas to shake off an ugly 2-6-1 start and swept 2016 national champion Montreal in style to book their trip to Napanee. They believe they can beat anybody and results dictate they can hang with top-10 opposition.
Weaknesses: Concordia still lacks top-tier offensive talent and its scoring by committee approach may run dry at nationals against elite defences. Katherine Purchase (2.33, .907) is hot and cold between the pipes.
Queen’s Gaels (#8, Host)
Regular Season: 14-8-2 (Conf: 6th)
Playoffs: Lost to Toronto, 2-1, in Round One
Strengths: The Gaels had one of the top penalty kills in the country at just over 90 per cent. Addi Halladay (13-3—16) and Nadia Larocca (8-6—14) are the team’s main goalscoring threats, while Katrina Manoukarakis (4-11—15) has shown some playmaking ability.
Weaknesses: Queen’s had the worst power play unit in the country at just 5.8 per cent. The Gaels struggled to keep the puck out of their own net against high-end teams, and haven’t played since being knocked out in the first round of the OUA playoffs on Feb. 26.
Whew, you made it.
Below is your reward: First-round predictions followed by a song to describe each team’s chances of claiming the 2017 national championship.
(4) McGill vs. (5) StFX — Thurs. Mar. 16, 3 p.m. ET
The Martlets should have enough talent on their top two lines to see off any challenge from X, full stop. I’ll take gold-medalist Melodie Daoust, the clinical finishing of Olivia Atkinson and the physical presence of Jade Downie over anything StFX can throw McGill’s way.
Prediction: 5-1 McGill.
(1) UBC vs. (8) Queen’s — Thurs. Mar. 16, 7 p.m. ET
While the T-Birds certainly didn’t romp to the CanWest title, they’re the no.-1 seed for a reason. Plus, Queen’s was roughly the seventh-best team in the OUA, has struggled all season to find goals, and hasn’t played in three weeks.
Prediction: 3-0 UBC.
(3) Saint Mary’s vs. (6) Alberta — Fri. Mar. 17, 11 a.m. ET
A morning start time could be of slight detriment to Alberta, but if the Pandas execute their systems to the best of their abilities they ought to be able to shut down the scintillating SMU duo of Lanceleve-Manning.
Prediction: -0 Alberta.
(2) Guelph vs. (7) Concordia — Fri. Mar. 17, 3 p.m. ET
Look, I love what Julie Chu and her staff have done at Concordia, I really do. Believe me. But Rachel Flanagan’s Guelph team is the most well-rounded entry in this year’s tournament, and barring a complete collapse should be able to see off the Stingers. It might be close, perhaps the closest of the quarter-final games, but advantage Guelph.
Prediction: 3-1 Guelph.
(1) UBC (“Danger Zone” – Kenny Loggins) — With all their playoff games decided by two goals or less, I guess you could say the T-Birds were living on the edge in the…danger zone. This bunch of ‘mavericks’ are a one seed for a reason.
(2) Guelph (“Put Your Hands Up” – Boiling Point) — I just think Guelph has all the pieces to win, okay? Also needed an excuse to insert that sick Minnesota high-school hockey video into this somewhere. Fire me up for nationals!
(3) SMU (“1234” – Feist) — As Feist once said, you need one, two, three, four or more contributors to make a run at nationals. Okay, maybe she didn’t say it explicitly. But it was clearly her motive in writing the song.
(4) McGill (“Somebody Told Me” – The Killers) — They’re dangerously talented and watching their five-forward power play makes me want to dance, similar to this Killers tune.
(5) StFX (“Pretty Vegas” – INXS) — Much like the short-lived career of J.D. Fortune as the frontman of INXS, I don’t see the X’s stay on the championship side of the bracket lasting long.
(6) Alberta (“Small Town Throwdown” – Brantley Gilbert et. al.) — Was really feeling some Nickelback, because the Edmonton Oil Kings entire warmup is Nickelback, but Alberta’s defence-first attitude just screamed gritty country-rock. Don’t @ me.
(7) Concordia (“Sandstorm” – Darude) — Did they even expect to be here? Probably not, especially after starting 2-6-1 out of the gate. But something about the Stingers screams fun, much like this unforgettable euro tune from the year 2000. Check out those shades.
(8) Queen’s (“Standing in the Dark” – Platinum Blonde) — This iconic (ish?) Canadian pop-rock tune was released 36 years ago, which is also how long it’s been since Queen’s last played a game at nationals.
Enjoy the hockey everybody!